2016 Denver GFA, Part Deux: Duo Melis, Fabio Zanon, and More

Duo Melis

By Blair Jackson

We continue with more highlights from my three days at the Guitar Foundation of America convention in Denver, Colorado, June 21–25. As I noted in Part One, I was there for the three middle days of the event, so my report reflects only concerts and lectures I was able to attend during that time. So, this is by no means a complete accounting of everything that went on at GFA. Rather, it’s snapshots and impressions that will hopefully give you a feel for it. Everyone I’ve spoken to since GFA agrees that it was a fantastic convention. Next year: the southern California city of Fullerton, near Los Angeles. You really should try to make it.

Back to GFA 2016!

Thibaut Garcia. Though Toulouse, France, native Thibaut Garcia won a number of international competitions as a teenager, he was basically unknown in the U.S. when he took home the First Prize honors at GFA in Oklahoma City in 2015. A little later this year he will embark on a 50-concert GFA tour of the U.S. and Canada—part of the prize package he won—and based on his June 22 late-afternoon concert in Denver, I think it’s safe to say American and Canadian audiences are in for a treat.

Thibaut Garcia onstage at Denver GFA
Thibaut Garcia onstage at Denver GFA

Just 22 years old, Garcia (who is of mixed French and Spanish heritage), proved to be a powerful and confident performer during his one-hour recital. For me, the highlight was his strong and sophisticated reading of Las 4 Estaciones Porteñas by Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), arranged by Sergio Assad. It’s true that Piazzolla seems to turn up in half the guitar concerts I go to, but that’s not a complaint; on the contrary, his body of work has so much range and enough unpredictability that nearly every piece of his that is being interpreted by guitarists (solo and more) feels fresh and alive. That was certainly the case here. Garcia elected to start with “Otoño Porteño” (“Autumn,” listed third in the program) with it’s jumping nuevo tango–ish figure, and then proceed with “Invierno” (“Winter”; it’s the quietest and most balladic of the four), followed by “Primavera” (“Spring”) and “Verano” (“Summer”)—the last two are clearly related in approach and sound to “Otoño.” All four sections feature interesting tempo shifts, as well as sonorous lyrical passages and contrasting moments of brooding intensity and/or sensuality. Garcia handled the piece’s varying shades with great skill and sensitivity, and he was rewarded at the end with a thunderous standing ovation.

I interviewed Garcia the following afternoon; that story will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar, out in November.

Guitar Society Round Table. If you’ve seen the most recent issue of Classical Guitar (Summer 2016) you might have seen our report on a big Classical Guitar Society Summit that took place in Baltimore this past spring. Well, this two-hour GFA round table touched on some of the same issues (though of course not with the same depth as the two-day Baltimore conference). Hosted by John Olson, president of the New York Classical Guitar Society and founder of the first 2008 summit, which evolved into the Baltimore gathering, the GFA round table featured several speakers from different societies, each highlighting different issues.

William Ash of the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society got the ball rolling with a talk about ways that guitar groups can attract investors to their nonprofits, as well as receive grants from city and state organizations that help fund other arts groups. The Guitar Society of Toronto’s Heather Morand Clark discussed the importance of devoting time and resources to guitar societies’ marketing and publicity efforts—recommending techniques that have worked for her group, including expanding their email lists, buying ad time on the local classical music radio station, and sponsoring ticket giveaways on radio. Federico Musgrove Stetson of the Florida Guitar Foundation hyped the social media angle—“for engaging audiences, not as much for selling.” He talked about using Facebook, Periscope, and other platforms to connect with people, and also mentioned a pair of free apps that can make running an organization more efficient: Prezi.com (presentation software) and Slack.com (a team communications app). The Tucson Guitar Society’s Julia Pernet talked about the rise of her organization and how it has promoted guitar through free Sunday concerts at a local botanical garden, and by offering ticket discounts for guitar concerts to members of other classical music groups in the area, co-promoting concerts with some of those groups, and also sending guitarists into local schools. The educational angle was then picked up by William Ash, who returned to talk about how his SLCGS had attracted considerable new grant funding as a result of their well-publicized program that brought a classical-guitar teaching program into several troubled, mostly African-American schools in the St. Louis area.


The round table was very well received by the large audience (mostly folks from other guitar societies), and several expressed interest in making the event an annual part of GFA. Sounds like a good idea.

Round table participants, L-R: Julia Pernet, Federico Musgrove Stetson, John Olson, Heather Morand Clark, William Ash
Round table participants, L-R: Julia Pernet, Federico Musgrove Stetson, John Olson, Heather Morand Clark, William Ash

Fabio Zanon. The Brazilian guitarist—who won the GFA competition 20 years ago—could seemingly do no wrong at this concert on June 22 at the main concert hall, which was just about filled to capacity, the rapturous crowd hanging on every note. The revelatory piece for me (and some others I spoke with the following day) was Grande Polonaise op. 24 by Polish Romantic composer Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz (1805–1881), a piece and composer previously unknown to me. Before playing it, Zanon explained that Bobrowicz, who some have called “the Chopin of guitar,” studied with the great Italian guitarist/composer Mauro Giuliani in Vienna, and wrote 20 pieces for guitar before quitting music in his mid-20s. His dense and patriotic Grande Polonaise was published around the same time as his countryman Chopin’s much more famous Grande Polonaise op. 22. Zanon’s performance of the Bobrowicz work was spectacular and full of contrasts, as he confidently negotiated the piece’s dazzling fast runs, delicate melodic turns, and stirring martial build-ups. When people talk about the guitar being capable of sounding like an orchestra in itself, this is what they’re talking about. I’m not aware of any recordings of this work, but I’d love to get one.

ICAC Semi-Finals. The semi-finals in the International Concert Artist Competition were spread across two sessions in the middle of Thursday, June 23, in the main concert hall. An interview appointment prevented me from seeing all 12 guitarists (six in two sessions), but as fate would have it, I did see the four eventual finalists, all of whom I thought were excellent. (This should not be surprising, as many of the participants are guitar competition veterans who have proven themselves time and again to be outstanding players. Clearly the future of the instrument is, literally, in good hands.) Of the eight performers I saw, I put stars on my program next to the name of five, including three of the eventual finalists: Andrea De Vitis of Italy, Celil Refik Kaya of Turkey, and Pavel Kukhla of Belarus—but, interestingly, not eventual First Place winner, American Xavier Jara. (My other two favorites, for the record, were Chad Ibison of the U.S. and Marko Topchii of Ukraine.) But I’m really in no position to evaluate the nuances of multiple performances of disparate pieces, so I’ll have to presume the very distinguished panel of judges (which included GFA concert performers Jason Vieaux, Raphaella Smits, and Fabio Zanon, among others) knew what they were doing. Each guitarist played a short piece or two of their choosing, plus one quite difficult required work: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s El sueno de la razon produce monstrous.

Duo Melis. I fell in love with Duo Melis (Susana Prieto of Spain and Alexis Mazurakis of Greece) at last year’s La Guitarra California Festival in San Luis Obispo, and once again they presented a diverse and outstanding program. The big takeaway from this Thursday night concert was the world premiere of a piece dedicated to Duo Melis: the four-movement Sonata for Two Guitars, by Spanish/American composer Miguel A. Roig-Francoli (b. 1953), who was on hand for the performance and spoke to the crowd before the piece. Roig-Francoli has written more than 50 compositions for all sorts of instrumental configurations since 1977, but this was his first guitar piece, so he “immersed myself in the masters” of classical guitar many months and also asked Duo Melis what they wanted from a new piece: “They didn’t help at all!” he explained with a laugh. “They said, ‘What we want is a big piece, virtuosic, brilliant… no pressure!”

Well, mission accomplished! Roig-Francoli’s Sonata for Two Guitars is a bold and exciting work. The first movement (labeled “Toccata. Presto, very freely”) was dominated by abrupt, slashing, slightly dissonant chops that reminded me of suspense-film music—Bernard Hermann, perhaps. The music leaped and galloped, then was offset by more lyrical passages, before returning to the original dramatic thrust. The second section, dubbed “Andante, molto espressivo” (though Roig-Francoli explained it’s actually a sarabande) was lush and pretty, with echoes of both Bach and Gershwin, if I’m not mistaken. (There’s definitely a hint of Rhapsody in Blue in there.) The third movement is titled “It takes two…” —the ellipsis substituting for “to tango,” of course. And indeed, that was the flavor of this charming interlude. The final movement is called “Toccata no. 2 (with a side trip to Bali),” which was bookended by passages that revived the sort of short, sharp jolts of the opening movement, but also let Duo Melis really soar in between with some highly virtuosic runs that were truly breathtaking. And “Bali” was clearly an influence in the movement’s middle section, where I could almost hear the metallic clang of a gamelan in the composer’s writing. This is another piece I can’t wait to hear again—with any luck, Duo Melis will record it soon!

Kevin Garry. The personable and engaging Colorado-based guitarist and teacher Kevin Garry presented a lively and information-packed lecture called “Music for Guitar and String Quartet from the Late Modern Era,” for which he was accompanied by a string quartet to demonstrate some of the different styles of writing that have emerged for this specialized, but growing, configuration. Garry noted that between 1750 and 1950, there are fewer than 50 known works for guitar and string quartet; since 1950, the repertoire has grown by over 300 works in “many different paths, avenues, and styles,” he said, including post-romantic, post-tonal, nationalistic, world music, rock/jazz, programmatic, political, minimalist, and post-modern (to name a number of broad categories). He and the quartet played portions of several 21st century pieces—written by composers such as Sergio Assad, Maximo Diego Pujol, and Michael Daugherty—to illustrate some of the different approaches to writing for guitar and string quartet.

Kevin Garry and string quartet at GFA
Kevin Garry and string quartet at GFA

Garry says that within the next couple of weeks, he is going to post much of his research on his website.  We’ll be sure to let you know when that info becomes available.

Izhar Elias and Michael Nicolella. This midday two-fer offered fine programs by two very different guitarists, each of whose repertoire spanned from the Baroque era to the present. First up was Dutch guitarist Izhar Elias, who walked onto the concert hall stage from the wings already strumming a gorgeous copy of a circa-1690 five-course (ten-string) Baroque guitar. The piece was Autre Chaconne in C, by Francesco Corbetta (1616-1681), an Italian who wrote and performed for the likes of Charles II of England (for whom this piece was written) and Louis XIV of France. I was, frankly, surprised at how much chordal—what I would call folk-style—strumming was in the piece (as well as the following Corbetta number, Caprices de Chaconne in C), in addition to the expected Baroque flavors. You can see and hear Elias playing this piece on the above-mentioned instrument on YouTube. Check it out! (Elias, also played an early 19th century guitar for a couple of numbers, as well as a modern guitar for a pair of contemporary pieces.)

By the time we got to the second half of the concert, featuring Seattle favorite Michael Nicolella, I had already conceptualized the notion of just writing about one piece per guitarist for this report, and I fully assumed that I would rhapsodize about Nicolella’s performance of J.S. Bach’s sprawling and demanding Ciacona (or Chaconne) from the Partita in D Minor BWV 1004. After all, Nicollela is a Bach specialist of sorts—his most recent recording is a superb double-CD set of the complete Bach Cello Suites. But then a curious thing happened: As he was setting up onstage following Elias’ set, he brought out a creamy yellow Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, a small amplifier, and a bunch of foot pedals, and set them on one side of the stage. What the hell? Was electric guitar really coming to the GFA? (Maybe this is old hat at GFA; I’m relatively new around here, and had never seen it.)

Nicolella brought out the electric for the final two numbers of his program: An appealing and quite melodic piece by Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006)—the most unusual aspect of which was the guitarist’s use of an insistent rhythmic loop, established at the outset of the number by using a pedal; and the work that intrigued me most, “Garden of Love” by Jacob ter Veldhuis (b.1951). The latter had Nicolella playing the Strat (which sounded free of effects, save for perhaps a little echo/reverb) accompanied by a sometimes bizarre assortment of prerecorded backing tracks. It opens with an Englishman reading William Blake’s short 1794 poem (from Songs of Experience), “The Garden of Love.” Then, cue the guitar and various sonic squawks and scratches, some sounding like electronic birds, in odd, halting rhythms. Bits of the poem turned up throughout the piece as repeated words and phrases—“I saw… I saw… I saw…”—or manipulated and extended, as Nicolella played on in a liquid style, sometimes in smooth contrast to brief prerecoreded rhythmic ejaculations of varying tempos and duration, but always fully in sync with his unusual electronic “orchestra.” (You can hear an audio recording of Nicolella playing “Garden Love” here.) The crowd seemed to give Nicolella the leeway he needed—I didn’t see anyone walk out, and the GFA survived a (tasteful) Stratocaster assault!

As I left my final concert, I was struck by the fact that my whirlwind three-day guitar binge had opened with the undeniably strange Aleph Guitar Quartet and ended with a Stratocaster-plus-electronics. In between was an incredible collection of pieces from the 16th century to the present—and proof positive of the guitar’s amazing versatility and vitality.